The shooting of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland by a fellow first-grader in Mount Morris Township, Mich., set off a new round of complaints about the scourge of guns, reviving the cry of "How many more children must die?" In the standard media version, the gun debate becomes a stark morality play. The forces of good are trying to protect us, and especially our children, from a human-made pestilence that takes an awful toll on our land; the forces of evil are exploiting Americans' atavistic love affair with guns for political and/or monetary gain. But is it really that simple?
There is little doubt that the much-maligned gun lobby has engaged in some extreme rhetoric and has opposed sensible restrictions backed by most Americans (including gun owners), such as waiting periods and mandatory background checks for handgun purchases. But it is equally true that many members of the chattering classes feel such a visceral aversion toward guns that they are inclined to accept shaky anti-gun arguments and to disregard any evidence that, perish the thought, Charlton Heston may sometimes have a point.
For the record, I'm not a member of the National Rifle Association and the only gun I've ever owned was a childhood toy. Although my politics are generally of a libertarian bent, I don't buy the notion of an armed citizenry as a safeguard against tyrannical government. Nor do I have a problem with some of the new gun laws championed by President Clinton.
Closing the loophole that lets buyers at gun shows evade mandatory background checks certainly seems to make sense. Mandating child-safety trigger locks on new handguns may be a good idea (depending on how much hindrance such locks would pose to an adult if a gun is needed for emergency self-defense), though it won't do much about the millions of older guns already out there. But it's clear that the anti-gun movement goes far beyond the advocacy of such modest measures, and often substitutes hysteria and self-righteousness for reasoned discussion.
On the face of it, it might seem that no sane person could question the havoc guns wreak on America and that no sane society could tolerate it. In 1997, there were 21,259 handgun deaths and 11,177 deaths from other firearms in the United States; our homicide rates are three to 12 times higher than in industrialized nations with stringent gun controls. Case closed? Not quite.
Consider, for instance, the fact that our non-gun homicide rates exceed total homicide rates in many nations. In 1990, the murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate in the United States was 9.3 per 100,000 people, and firearms were used in about two-thirds of these killings. Even if we had somehow gotten rid not only of handguns but of all guns, and even if, improbably, none of the killers who used guns would have substituted some other weapon, we still would have been left with 3.1 murders for every 100,000 people -- higher than the homicide rate that year in Canada (2.1 per 100,000), Sweden (1.4) or Japan (0.5). Obviously, something is going on here other than access to guns. What's more, over three-quarters of violent crimes other than homicide in the United States are committed without firearms.
Consider, too, countries where guns are common and crime is rare. Anti-gun pundits assiduously ignore Switzerland, which boasts the world's most heavily armed population as well as a thriving gun culture (shooting contests for children ages 12 to 16 are a popular tradition) and one of the world's lowest crime rates. In 1997, Switzerland had 1.2 murders per 100,000 -- about the same as Great Britain, often touted as a gun-control success story. Israel, where most adults are either on active military duty or in the reserves and almost every home has a weapon, also has a low murder rate, on a par with most of Western Europe.
But that's not all. More than half of gun deaths in this country (about 55 percent, according to the latest statistics) are not homicides, but suicides. Am I saying that we needn't be concerned if people merely shoot themselves rather than shoot others? No. But in this case, blaming the guns for the deaths is especially dubious. Curiously, when it comes to suicide, we don't see many comparisons with all those countries that so wisely keep guns out of people's hands -- maybe because old gun-crazy America wouldn't look so bad by comparison. In 1996, the suicide rate per 100,000 people was 11.8 in the U.S., 13.4 in Canada, 17.9 in Japan, 20.9 in France and 25 in Finland.
The foolishness to which smart people will sink on the subject of guns is epitomized by a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine that linked the buying of handguns to elevated suicide risk. In the first week after purchase, the study found, gun buyers shot themselves at 57 times the rate of the general population.
"These are horrifying findings and they ought to move even the most ardent gun-control foes to think twice," sermonized the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I wonder how the editors and the researchers think the cause-and-effect relationship works: A guy goes out and buys a gun, then a couple of days later gets upset about something and puts a bullet in his head? It shouldn't take a degree in medicine, or in journalism, to figure out that most of these people probably buy a gun because they plan to kill themselves. Of course, one could argue that easily available firepower provides a dangerously convenient means of self-destruction; but, as we can see from cross-national comparisons, the lack of it is no deterrence.
Then there's the demagoguery about children, for which Kayla's senseless death has provided ample opportunity. "Gunfire killed 4,223 American children under age 19 in 1997," writes Clarence Page in the Chicago Tribune, forgetting to mention that fewer than 700 of these victims were under 17 years old. Of course that's still a tragic number -- though it's just as tragic that the same year, about 700 other kids were slaughtered with knives, blunt objects or bare hands, while more than 2,000 children under 15 died in car crashes and nearly 1,000 drowned. And of course we shouldn't be indifferent to murder or suicide among older teenagers. But why try to equate gunplay by 18-year-old gang members with the murder of a 6-year-old?
While exaggerated claims about the evil of guns are treated respectfully, no such attention is accorded to pesky facts that suggest that the case for guns as a means of self-defense and crime prevention may be more than an NRA myth. John R. Lott, an economist who is a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, has published studies that conclude that state laws allowing any citizen with no criminal record to obtain a concealed weapon permit lead to lower rates of violent crime, including murder.
Lott's research may have flaws, but his critics have yet to point out any; instead, they have resorted to ad hominem attacks focusing on Lott's grants from right-wing foundations and to false insinuations of financial ties to gun manufacturers. Most of the mainstream media and punditry, meanwhile, simply ignore Lott and scoff at the notion that guns may have benefits.
Gun-control advocates assert that just over 2 percent of handgun homicides are in self-defense and cite studies purporting to show that a gun in the house is more dangerous to the owner than to an intruder. Gun-rights supporters counter that these studies omit cases in which a civilian stops a crime, and perhaps escapes death or serious harm, by firing in the air or merely brandishing a weapon (surely, it's a bit harsh to require a dead criminal as proof of effective self-protection). Estimates of the frequency of such incidents vary widely, from 84,000 to 3.6 million a year. Obviously, the pro-gun groups prefer the higher numbers, and their claims deserve to be treated with caution. But so do the claims of the other side.
Lott charges that anti-gun bias causes the media to underreport dramatic evidence that guns can save lives. His most startling example comes from, of all things, two of the high school shooting sprees of recent years. In Pearl, Miss., and in Edinboro, Penn., armed civilians -- Assistant Principal Joel Myrick and restaurant owner James Strand -- disarmed the shooters at gunpoint before the police arrived; yet the few news stories that mentioned their role usually left out their use of firearms, saying simply that they "subdued" the attackers or "persuaded" them to surrender.
One may feel that crediting guns with saving lives in these cases is like rewarding an arsonist for helping put out the fire. After all, if it hadn't have been for guns, there would have been no shootings and no need for Myrick's and Strand's heroics. But this response presumes that we can achieve a situation in which guns are not available.
Let's suppose that a total handgun ban, which is advocated by a few gun-control groups such as the Violence Policy Center, had a chance of being enacted. At present it has virtually no political support and is opposed by a solid majority of the public in opinion polls, but let's imagine a barrage of high-profile handgun crimes changed the political debate. What about the 65 million handguns Americans already own? Some law-abiding gun owners would no doubt turn them in, but many or most would not. Would gun-ban advocates then support raids on private homes to confiscate weapons from citizens unwilling to turn them in? Even many people with no pro-gun sympathies would cringe at the idea.
Besides, this society just isn't very good at keeping illegal things away from people: Think of drug prohibition. Gun prohibition might turn out to be even harder to enforce, since a large portion of the population would be philosophically opposed to the ban. A War on Guns would probably prove to be as much of a civil-liberties disaster as the War on Drugs, without being much more effective.
Does anyone doubt that in an era when teenagers can find detailed bomb-making instructions on the Internet, the underground manufacture of handguns would quickly spring up? Or that some police officers and military personnel would be tempted to sell their handguns on the black market? Or that some of the 130 million other privately owned firearms would pick up some of the slack? Or that the very people in whose hands guns pose the most danger would be the most likely to ignore the gun ban?
NRA slogans like "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" and "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns" may have become a joke, yet there is some truth to them as well -- as the tragedy of Kayla Rolland's death should remind us. The boy who shot Kayla, as we know, had been dumped by his drug-using mother in a flophouse where guns were routinely traded for crack cocaine. A neglected, angry child, he had earlier stabbed another classmate with a pencil. (Who is to say that Kayla would have been alive if he had found a switchblade at home, instead of a stolen gun?) Despite Draconian drug laws, the house where the boy lived was awash in illegal drugs. I don't see any reason to believe that any gun law would have kept out the illegal guns.
Without minimizing the horror of every violent death, it is useful to remember that firearm fatalities overall have been steadily declining, despite media coverage that feeds the perception of a mounting crisis. This drop may be partly due to tougher gun laws, such as background checks that have stopped thousands of convicted felons from buying handguns -- though it probably had far more to do with the general decline in violent crime.
Some new measures, particularly ones related to gun safety, may save more lives. But these measures should be approached humbly, without any illusion that we can solve the problem of violence in America if we only muster the will to act against guns -- and without demonizing guns or their owners.